This post is for those people new to South Indian cooking and would like to learn the basics!
Tempering is a unique and important technique in Indian cooking. To make it clear, it is in no way related to the tempering of chocolate or eggs that most of us are familiar with. Tempering commonly known as Tadka or Thalipu in the native language involves frying the whole spices in hot oil or ghee or butter to release their essential oils and bring out their full flavour and aroma. The hot fat locks and retains the flavour of the spices and when this spice-infused fat, is added to the dish it intensifies the flavour of the dish multifold.
The tempering can either be done at the beginning or added to the dish at the end. This depends on the dish being prepared. In dishes like Sambhar, Poriyal and gravies(curries), it does not matter when the tadka is done and it is usually at the beginning for convenience purposes. But in dishes like Rasam, Kootu & dhal, it has to be done at the end to get the flavour spot on. You can find the instructions on each recipe.
The first and foremost essential ingredient for tadka is the oil.Sesame oil, Coconut oil, Ghee (clarified butter), and Vegetable oil are the commonly used oils in the south Indian cooking. For a proper tadka, the oil should be really hot. The seeds must crackle and splutter as soon as you add them.If not, the purpose of tadka is not achieved.
The Ingredients: (Refer notes at the bottom)
Below is the list of common ingredients used in South Indian cooking tadka and the ones that you will find a lot in my recipes on the blog.
- Mustard seeds (kadugu) – (Spice)
- Red chillies (vatha milagai) – (Spice)
- Curry leaves (karivepilai) – (Herb)
- Bengal gram – Channa dhal (kadalai parupu) – (Lentil)
- Split husked black gram – Urad dhal (ulutham parupu) – (Lentil)
- Asafoetida powder (perungayam, hing) (Spice) *
How to do Tadka | Tempering
Heat oil in a pan. Then add the ingredients mentioned above one by one. If done at the end, then pour the oil over the dish or continue doing the recipe in the same pan.
The ingredients must be added in the order mentioned above. This structure is mostly based on the time required for frying individual spices. For example, channa dhal takes a longer time to fry than the urad dhal. Urad dhal easily burns. So the channa dhal is added first and then the urad dhal. As the oil is hot chances of burning the spices are more if you are not quick. So have everything ready before you start and work swiftly.
As a general rule, the mustard seeds & curry leaves will splutter, the outer skin of the red chillies will change colour and become dark, the lentils should become golden brown and finally add the asafoetida powder as it will burn easily.
With practice, you will get the hang of it and once you become dexterous, the little details can be omitted.
Few things to consider:
- Be careful and have a splatter ready (esp if you are new to this) as the whole spices when added to the hot fat, crackles and splutters.
- Have everything ready before you heat the pan for tempering. The ingredients have to go one after the other quickly. If you are doing tadka at the beginning continue with the recipe
The ingredients that go in the tempering vary greatly and depend on the local spices used in the regional cuisine. For example, cumin seeds are used a lot in North Indian cooking whereas in the South it is more common to use mustard seeds. Similarly, nigella seeds are common in the northeast Indian cooking. Even though the ingredients differ, the purpose of doing tadka is the same- to enhance the flavour of the dish. Even a plain cooked dhal is divine when tempered with ghee and cumin seeds!
* Do not use asafoetida powder if you are allergic to gluten. As such the asafoetida (the seed) is gluten free but the commercial industry mixes wheat in the powdered form. Hence people sensitive to gluten can omit them or use the whole spice. Outside of India, the powdered form is easily available in all Indian stores but the whole spice is difficult to obtain.
These ingredients can be found in all Indian grocery stores. For the lentils, go with the local names (channa dhal, urad dhal) as some packages that I have seen did not have the English names printed on it. It is easier to ask the shopkeeper if you are not able to find one.
Those in Munich, the Indian ingredients can also be bought online at http://www.get-grocery.com/en/ or https://www.spicemaster.de/. I have personally shopped online on both the sites and both are good and delivery service is prompt. You can use these avenues to get all your Indian grocery items.